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Psychooncology. 2009 Jan;18(1):79-86. doi: 10.1002/pon.1386.

Depression, distress and positive mood in late-stage cancer: a longitudinal study.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.



To determine whether new-onset clinical depression emerges over time, and whether positive and negative mood levels change among patients with terminal cancer.


In this two-site study, 58 cancer patients seen at least twice were interviewed monthly until death or study termination. Major measures included the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, Holland System of Beliefs Inventory, and Positive and Negative Affect Schedule.


At study entry, 7% of patients had major depressive disorder; another 9% had depressive symptoms but no Axis I diagnosis. Twenty-two percent were taking antidepressants. During visits ranging from 2 to 21 per patient, 76% of patients never had a depression diagnosis, 3% were always depressed, and 14% became depressed for the first time, almost exclusively at their final visit before death. Scores on positive mood were equivalent to or higher than scores on negative mood and did not change over time. Cancer site, hospice, spiritual beliefs, income, and caregiver mood were unrelated to depression. Spiritual beliefs were, however, associated with positive mood, hope, and better quality of life.


In this exploratory study, terminally ill patients approaching death experienced positive as well as negative mood although a significant minority met criteria for major depression at the last visit before death. The findings suggest that major depression is not an inevitable part of the dying process in patients with terminal cancer. Further, the appropriateness of classifying sadness, loss of interest and thoughts that one would be better off dead in the last days of life as psychopathology should be reconsidered.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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